Author: Lawrence Hill
Published: January 18, 2007
Rating: 5 Stars
Historical Drama | 511 pages | Published by HarperCollins
If you live in the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand you may also find this book under the title Someone Knows My Name
The Book of Negroes is a grand historical drama that is written with unwavering confidence. This confidence leaps off the page and assures the reader that what he is reading is authentic and significant. I was in awe the entire time, utterly amazed by Lawrence Hill’s ability to craft such a complex narrative filled with characters who felt so real and raw. Without a doubt, this is my favorite read of 2016 so far.
Our hero and protagonist is Aminata Diallo, whose story we follow from her childhood in the village of Bayo in 1745 and well into her autumn years in the early 1800s. The Book of Negroes is narrated entirely in Aminata’s voice, and as a result we get to know her intimately and experience the many bittersweet and heartbreaking moments of her life, of which there were countless many.
I want to warn readers that this is not a lighthearted or easy read. The story is brutally honest and authentic in its depiction of the horrors of slavery and the way in which its very existence warps and destroys people’s humanity and corrupts everything around it. But even if you prefer to read books with lighter subjects, I still highly recommend you read this one because it’s an incredible story that explores the complexities of human experience and history.
It’s difficult to capture the essence and details of the novel in a review because it’s such a monumental story. But it is this ambitious scope that makes it special. I felt that every single page was necessary to create the living, breathing world that I got lost in every time I opened the book. I tend to prefer shorter works because I am a slow reader, but I do admit that slimmer novels may not allow themselves enough time to reach their full potential. It is true that long stories can drag and many 500 page books could be better off if shortened to 400 pages, but it’s not so with The Book of Negroes.
I will now attempt to give a very brief overview of the extraordinary trajectory of Aminata Diallo’s life.
Her childhood was spent in the village of Bayo in Africa with her father, a jeweler, and her mother, a midwife. They were a family of Muslims who lived peacefully until they were kidnapped by slavers and Aminata is shipped off to South Carolina. Alone. Much of her life is spent in the colonies as a slave suffering indignities and casual cruelty every day of her life. We see Aminata travel, not always willingly, to Georgia, Virginia, New York and eventually to Canada — specifically to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
It’s difficult to label Aminata as anything in particular because her life was lived in so many different and distinct places, and each one influenced her complex and multifaceted identity. But I think she would identify as an African first and Nova Scotian second.
Among a myriad other things, The Book of Negroes is the story of The Black Loyalists, a group of African and African-American refugees who joined the British colonial forces during the American Revolutionary War because they were promised their freedom if they sided with the Crown. This group of refugees left from New York to Nova Scotia and eventually to Sierra Leone. It was Aminata Diallo who helped record many of the names of these loyalists into a book that would come to be known as “The Book of Negroes.” These 500 plus pages tell that extraordinary and harrowing story.
I cannot do justice to the scope of this novel in a review — there are dozens of characters and decades of life experiences to explore in this marvelous and important piece of Canadian Literature. But I hope I’ve enticed you enough to consider reading it. If you do, it will be one of the most rewarding and illuminating reading experiences you have this year.
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